Pope Francis May Be ‘a Man of His Word,’ But What Does He Say?

Pope Francis May Be ‘a Man of His Word,’ But What Does He Say? May 16, 2018
Pope Francis in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, photo from Focus Features

A paradox lies at the heart of the new documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, and it’s this: Actions speak louder.

As Christians, what we do is far more eloquent than what we say. How we behave is far more persuasive than how we speak. Again and again in the doc, Francis drives home a truth often lost in the midst our noisy world: How important it is to listen. Listen. Listen.

Admittedly, Francis says a lot in A Man of His Word. In the doc, in theaters May 18, he expounds on seemingly dozens of topics: poverty and the environment; consumerism and technology; the beauty of labor, the mystery of suffering and the Catholic Church’s own shameful scandals.

But in some ways, I think the film is at its most powerful when it shows Francis simply interacting with folks, sometimes in utter silence.

He walks through Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, one of the holiest sites in Islam, with somber, respectful gravity. He’s seen smiling with Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church—an unprecedented meeting between the figureheads of two bitterly separated wings of Christianity, divorced for more than 1,000 years. We see him walk through African hospitals filled with sick and dying children, quietly touching their heads, blessing them and their mothers.

And when he stands before victims of a destructive hurricane in the Philippines, his message is simplicity itself: “I don’t know what to say to you,” he says, “other than to keep silent.”

Pope Francis became a multicultural superstar when first elected on the basis of his actions. News reports trumpeted how the one-time Cardinal of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, carried his own luggage into Rome, how he eschewed the traditional Apostolic Palace in favor of a modest two-bedroom apartment; how he was whisked through the streets of the United States in a tiny Fiat 500 instead of a stretch limo or hulking SUV.

It’s one thing to say you have a heart for the poor. It’s another to step out and quietly, respectfully walk with them, as Francis does often here.

“I wanted the pope’s ideas and his message to be the centre of this documentary, his work of reform and his answers to today’s global questions,” writes director Wim Wenders in a preface to the movie’s production notes.

Wenders was given (according to the press notes) “unprecedented” access to Pope Francis, and A Man of His Word represents a two-year journey with the pontiff, ranging from the halls of the Vatican to the refugee camps in Greece to the streets of Benin.

While Wenders was given “carte blanche” by the Vatican and the right to the final cut, it’s pretty obvious from the get-go that this is no grand work of investigative journalism. The cynical reporter in me would call this an unremitting “puff piece” on the Pope—a one-sided narrative that excludes any dissenting voices and gives the floor to Francis, and Francis alone. That’s by design, according to Wenders: “This is not a biographical movie,” the director says. “It’s more like a biography of his ideas—it’s a film with him more than one about him.”

But while Wenders probably won’t snag a fourth Oscar nomination for a work that feels so hagiographic, the doc feels surprisingly resonant. It might not have challenged its subject, but it’s subject did challenge me.

Wenders’ Francis is, in many respects, a countercultural figure. As open-handed and humble as the pope seems here, Francis does his share of scolding, and he begins with the Catholic Church itself—suggesting to a group of frowning Cardinals that perhaps the church itself has grown too enamored and reliant on wealth and reminding them that it can’t serve “two masters.”

But he doesn’t stop there: “We must all consider if we can’t become a bit poorer” ourselves, he says, to alleviate the crushing poverty around the world.

But I don’t want to become poorer! part of me protests. I’ve worked hard for what I have. I like taking vacations. I like eating out. I like …

But Francis, caretaker, in some respects, of all the Catholic Church’s history and art and priceless treasure, lives in a two-bedroom apartment. He speaks and hugs the poor and the destitute—people who sometimes I pretend not to see.

“We wanted people to walk away from this movie with a sense of hope and a sense of longing for a different world,” Wenders says. But Francis insists that a different world requires our participation. It’s not enough to say we care. We have to show it.

“We are all responsible,” Francis says in the film. “none of us can say, ‘I have nothing to do with it.'”

Being a Christian in America is a strange thing, filled with its perpetual ironies. As I sat in the movie, I realized that many of my fellow evangelical Christians would be deeply challenged, perhaps dismissive, of Francis’ concerns over the environment and climate change and our role as (as Francis says) earth’s “caretakers.” Some might be appalled at Francis’ open-handed stance toward homosexuality, when he says, simply, “who am I to judge?”

But then, in the next breath, Francis challenges me to really consider what it means to be a Christian. To question whether I’m doing near enough. To make me ask whether I’ve lost what, according to Pope Francis, is a critical aspect of expressing my faith well: The capacity to listen.

Of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, the pope says, “He was an apostle of the ear … knowing how to listen.”

I used to think of myself as a pretty good listener. But we live in noisy times, where most of us are rewarded for talking and tweeting, opining and pontificating. Just as I’m doing now.

Listening to other people a little better won’t get us more likes or retweets or pats on the back. But perhaps Francis is right: Maybe the world would be a little bit better—a little bit more Godly—if we learned to listen just a bit more.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word will be in theaters this Friday, May 18.

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